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USDA proposes local sourcing options for schools

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is aiming to help school officials buy more local food.

A proposal from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service provides for the option of buying “unprocessed locally grown or locally raised agricultural products” for school feeding programs.

The proposal was published in the April 19 Federal Register.

Comments from the industry are due by June 18.

Dora Rivas, president of the School Nutrition Association, said buying local makes sense for some schools.

“Many school nutrition programs nationwide have had tremendous success in expand-ing the use of locally sourced foods in school meals,” she said in an e-mail.

Since October 2008, the USDA said institutions receiving funds through the federal child nutrition programs may apply an optional “geographic preference” in buying unprocessed locally grown/raised agricultural products.

According to the Federal Register notice, the proposed rule applies to institutions in the school lunch/breakfast program and the fresh fruit and vegetable program. In addition, the Department of Defense Fresh Program would also come under the proposed rule, as well as state agencies making purchases on behalf of any of those programs.  The geographic preference provision does not apply to USDA purchases.

The agency said the geographic preference is not a “set-aside” for bidders located in a specified geographic area, and does not preclude a bidder from outside the specified area from competing for a contract. However, in most cases, the agency said the successful bidder would be located within the identified preferred geographic area.

Traditionally, the agency said a geographic preference established for a purchase provides bidders within that specified area additional points or credit calculated during bid evaluations.

The USDA said that allowing a geographic procurement preference option serves to reinforce “critical” reconnection between producers and consumers.

The provision in the farm bill specifically prohibits the use of processing methods that add significant value to the products.

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